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On Oct. 5, Bayer Leverkusen found themselves at a pivot point. Their best player had been sidelined since mid-March and who knew if he'd return to anything like the force he was after the World Cup? They were crashing out of a relatively favorable Champions League group. In the Bundesliga meanwhile, they found themselves marooned in the early season relegation zone.

To drag them out of the mire they sent for a coach whose only previous experience had been with the Real Sociedad B team. Xabi Alonso – formerly of Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – certainly knew what an elite team looked like but he was beginning life as a top tier coach in trying circumstances.

His players would be the first to acknowledge that.

"When he first came we were all down," says Jeremie Frimpong. "He had to lift the team up."

That he certainly did. Seven months later and Leverkusen's horizons are utterly changed. Before Friday's dispiriting 2-1 derby loss to Cologne, Alonso's men were undefeated in all competitions since Feb. 19. They have risen from the Bundesliga graveyard and find themselves in the sunlit uplands of the European places. They have left it too late for a charge into the top four but they may not need that to qualify for the Champions League anyway. Thursday brings with it the first leg of their Europa League semifinal against Roma (live on Paramount+), a chance to add just a second continental trophy for a club that has a reputation for being the nearly men of German football.

"It would mean everything," says Frimpong. "I don't think Leverkusen have won a trophy in a long while. It feels like it's time. We're a good team, we should win a trophy. Hopefully, it'll be this one."

Solid foundations

How has Alonso done it? One of the most elegant playmakers and progressive ball players of his generation started with the most basic principles, shoring up a defense that was leaking 1.7 goals per game under his predecessor Gerardo Seoane. Some of Leverkusen's early season difficulties were the result of individual errors from otherwhile reliable performers, a little from finishing variance at both ends of the pitch, particularly some off form from the likes of Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby.

"Initially we really had to focus on stabilizing ourselves defensively," says Florian Wirtz, who at the time was an interested observer from the sidelines, working his way back from the cruciate ligament rupture that robbed one of football's brightest young stars of the chance to shine at the World Cup. "We had to improve that part of the game. So the whole team was focused on defensive work. First and foremost, defend our goal, don't give up goals. That was really the foundation Xabi wanted to build."

Those foundations are looking solid. Under Alonso, Leverkusen have allowed opponents two fewer shots per game and their expected goals (xG) allowed has dropped from 1.51 to 1.2.6 per game. The 0.09 non-penalty xG per shot their opponents were taking before Friday's defeat gave Die Werkself the best mark in the top flight. That is quite some achievement for a team who were hardly known for their resilience even last season.

Only now that the backline is secure has Alonso loosened the strings. Their scoring dried somewhat in recent weeks with both Wolfsburg and Union Berlin holding on to earn 0-0 draws at home to Leverkusen; in the five game Bundesliga winning streak that proceeded they scored 15. They are also the leading scorers of the Europa League knockout stages with 14 in six matches, "We started to build that up through the middle and then up front with more ideas," says Wirtz. "How could we break down our opponents on the attacking third? How could we best utilize our strengths?"

Superstars in attack

The 20-year-old is as great a strength as any they have. Since returning from injury, Wirtz has played 808 minutes, almost the equivalent of nine full games. In that time he has registered enough assists, six, to rank in the top 15 providers for the Bundesliga. He creates a big chance every 90 minutes, a mark that vastly eclipses anyone else in the German top flight. In short, he is back to where he was last season, the best young creator in world football. That qualifier might even be undervaluing Wirtz. In 2021-22 only Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi averaged more goal-creating actions per 90 than the wunderkind.

"I think I am at the level I was at before, in some areas, maybe even playing a little better," he said. "That was always the goal from the beginning of recovery — to get the best out of the rehab and be as ready as possible.

"I didn't have any doubts at all that I would be able to play good football again. I remember being quite shocked when the diagnosis came in [after the injury] and I was determined just to look forward and make the best of the situation. There was a lot of work to be done — a lot of different things to focus on — but it was always looking ahead, keeping an eye on being on the pitch again. Just give everything to be back in your position."

Florian Wirtz is one of Europe's best playmakers. Twenty3

Wirtz is flowing and so are Leverkusen. Witness the ease with which he breezed through the Union Saint-Gilloise defense in the first leg of the Europa League quarterfinal, five defenders collapsing into the same patch of turf and the youngster simply stepping into a low shot into the bottom left corner, a crucial goal that kept his side from having to overturn a deficit in Belgium. Even he has to acknowledge that "it all feels really easy out there for the time being.

Roma boss Jose Mourinho might feel confident in coming up with a defensive scheme to slow down Wirtz alone but what can he do when he's also coming up against a devastating right flank of Frimpong and Diaby? Between them, these two have 41 goals in all competitions, 17 of which have, rather remarkably, come from wing-back Frimpong. Both players rank among the five quickest in the Bundesliga this season; Diaby just shading the two even though his teammate seems to think the difference is sizeable. 

"He's faster than me. Have I tested it? I just know," says Frimpong with the air of a man who is really not inclined to get involved in one of the few foot races he might not win.

That explosive movement rather frees them up to take whatever unorthodox position best tests the defenders. Under Alonso, Frimpong, for instance, will on occasion drift into more inverted positions to supplement the threat he poses down the byline. Diaby's touch map, meanwhile, looks nothing like that of a so-called right winger, even in games where, according to Transfermarkt, he starts on that flank.


If all their opponents have no idea how to stop Leverkusen's dynamic right flank it is perhaps no surprise that Frimpong is at a loss to explain it too. 

"How would I stop us? I don't know to be honest. Is it impossible? No, but I don't know, it's a very fast attack. I guess you'll have to figure it out." 

Good luck Mourinho.

Can it last?

The question that Leverkusen may well face once their Europa League race is run, however, is the same one that faces all but the dozen or so richest teams across the continent. How long can we keep this all together? Diaby is wanted by Newcastle and Arsenal. Frimpong has been linked with a move to work alongside compatriot Erik ten Hag at Manchester United. As for Wirtz, there isn't a top club in Europe that doesn't want him with Liverpool, Manchester City and Barcelona firm admirers.

Leverkusen understand that the time this squad together might be fleeting. In November 2021 managing director of sport Simon Rolfes told CBS Sports of his desire that this squad gets "maybe one year where they accelerate their career together." They might yet get longer than that from Wirtz, who feels he has unfinished business.

"I'm here in Leverkusen. We have a good team. We have a young team. I have a lot of friends. I am just fully concentrating on my tasks here. I have some of my own personal goals to accomplish here in Leverkusen so I'm really not looking or thinking about other clubs and instead just proving out there that I can be the best player that I can be in each game and helping the team win games," he said.

Keeping this talented young side together will surely be an easier task for Leverkusen if their talented young manager remains in the dugout. Wirtz and Frimpong are both glowing in their assessment of Alonso, said to be of interest to Tottenham, and his staff. 

"They've helped big time, not just me but you can tell from our results and the way we play that they've done the same for the whole team," says the Dutch wing back. "The coach has made a big difference and the staff, we're just really grateful to have them and hopefully he can keep us going."

Wirtz added, "He really shows, even in practice, how good he can still play. He has so much experience on the field as a player, he really knows how to carry himself and give the guidance we need so our team can reach its full potential and so all of us are at full capacity. He's really putting it on himself so that the team is really locked in mentally and focused but also that we are physically there in full as well.

"The atmosphere has been great. we've really come together as a team. We're giving all we can to be successful with the team."

A squad of fearless, explosive young talent now has a boss of whom you could say the same thing. That leap of faith Leverkusen took on Alonso looks to be an inspired decision.